Not all stories have been written, far from it. Have you ever read a book about food from West Africa? You have? Well, then what about a memoir on the mouth-watering politics and erotics of Nigerian cuisine? And when did you last read a book of poetry that uses the language of a military handbook to re-examine how we see war? Or what about a novella that tells the story of a young British woman who converts to Islam and then, out of misguided love and devotion, is drawn into religious extremism with terrifying results? The following seven authors have written such stories. These new and bold accounts tackle taboo topics, and are each beautifully crafted and a delight to read. Just look at the titles! Set in places as far apart as Rawalpindi, Lagos, and Rome, each book explores the universal nature of human experience.
1. Yemisi Aribisala
Yemisi Aribisala, who also goes by Yemisi Ogbe, is a prolific essayist and food writer well known to readers of Nigeria’s former 234Next newspaper, as well as the Pan African Chimurenga Chronic. Aribisala’s highly anticipated first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, will be published by Cassava Republic Press in October 2016. There are few writings by Africans that describe cuisine in relation to culture (let alone sex), so this in itself makes Aribisala’s forthcoming book intriguing. But those who have been following her essays over the years, and are familiar with the verve and confidence with which she writes, look forward to the pure delight of her prose. Aribisala’s fearless, witty, and unapologetic voice makes it difficult to find a literary comparison for her. Let’s just say that she writes a little like Nina Simone sings. Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds—Goddam!
2. Solmaz Sharif
Solmaz Sharif is a poet of Iranian descent whose debut poetry collection, LOOK, will be published by Graywolf Press in July 2016. In this book, Sharif uses military terms taken from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to re-examine the ways that we look at war. Whether through military checkpoints in her poem “Forced Visibility,” or through the missing spaces in redacted letters to prisoners in “Reaching Guantánamo,” or the surreal shock of “Soldier, Home Early, Surprises His Wife in Chick-fil-A,” Sharif deftly employs language to show how the terminology of war obscures, minimizes, hides and distorts the way we see it. “It matters what you call a thing:” begins her title poem, “LOOK.” Then later in the poem, Sharif turns her attention to the reader: “Let me LOOK at you.”
3. Meike Ziervogel
Meike Ziervogel is not only the founder and director of Peirene Press, an award-winning UK publishing house, but also the author of three novellas: Magda, Clara’s Daughter, and Kauthar. All three books examine the complexities, often to the point of destructiveness, of mother-daughter relationships. Her most recent, Kauthar, is the story of love and devotion gone wrong in the life of her young British protagonist. Kauthar is the name that the protagonist (born Lydia) adopts after converting to Islam. Her new religion and a loving husband, Rafiq, give new meaning to Kauthar’s life until she takes her religious faith to a terrifying extreme. This is a brave book and a particularly timely one that deserves a wide audience.
4. Chinelo Okparanta
5. Natalie Baszile
Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, Queen Sugar, offers a fresh take on the American South, contemporary black life, and interracial romance. Charley Bordelon, a single mother and the brave protagonist of this novel, leaves her home in Los Angeles to return to her father’s roots in rural Louisiana. Her father, upon his death, left Charley 800 acres of sugarcane land, and Charley is determined to start life anew as a farmer. Charley’s transition to her new life is not an easy one, and is further complicated by racism and family rifts. This sweeping, heartfelt story is now being made into a TV series produced by Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey.
6. Shobha Rao
Shobha Rao sets her debut collection of short stories, An Unrestored Woman, against the backdrop of Pakistan and India’s Partition. I have not read much literature on this period, and very little with the strong female protagonists to be found in Rao’s stories. Some of the most horrific repercussions of Partition were felt by women and children, which Rao explores in these interlinked stories with unexpected twists and turns. Rao writes lyrically with startlingly vivid imagery. Picture, for example, the groom and the father of the bride in the title story, “An Unrestored Woman”—two men “pecking over the details of her marriage like two crows over a piece of stale bread.” While many of the stories in this collection are extremely sad, the triumph of human will and resilience runs through this strong collection.
7. Jhumpa Lahiri
It is true that Jhumpa Lahiri is not new to the literary scene and might therefore seem like an odd choice for this list. However, she has just written a new book in a new language in which she boldly reveals some of her fears and vulnerabilities as a writer. In Other Words is Lahiri’s first book in Italian. There is nothing extraordinary about learning a new language and, as Lahiri writes in the book, many others have done this out of necessity rather than, as she did, by choice. What is unusual, however, is for a highly acclaimed author to write in a language that she has not yet mastered. In a chapter entitled “Fragile Shelter,” Lahiri writes, “How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect.” Then later, “Maybe because from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.” This speaks to me, as a writer, of the need to not only accept imperfection, but to also welcome it.
All these writers have taken risks with form or content and sometimes both. They certainly inspire me to write something different from what I’ve done in the past. I hope they inspire you too.
In Other Words,
Under the Udala Trees,
An Unrestored Woman,
Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds.